Saturday, June 25, 2011
NEW NOVEL - JUST LIKE THAT
As I promised at the end of the last post, I want to talk about another new novel forthcoming from StoneGate Ink (http://www.stonegateink.com/) later this summer, titled JUST LIKE THAT.
Quite a bit of this novel has already seen publication as parts of it have appeared as short stories in various publications, including Murdaland, Flatmancrooked, Kansas Quarterly/Arkansas Review, High Plains Literary Review, Houghton-Mifflin’s Best American Mystery Stories 2001, and one forthcoming in Noir Nation. A couple of the stories taken from this novel were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. So, I feel it has already kind of proved it's worth a bit.
It’s largely autobiographical—perhaps 80-85% taken from my own life. It’s centered around a road trip that I actually took with a friend from the joint.
Awhile after I was released on parole, I was working in a barbershop in Lakeville, Indiana for a guy named Dean. His shop was cleverly named “Dean’s Barbershop.” Dean was a truly cool guy and I loved working for him. At the time, I was charging $1.00 a haircut; at the end of my journey as a stylist, I was charging $100 per cut.
Every single morning when I arrived at work, Dean always said the same thing over our morning coffee before we opened the doors. “Les,” he’d say, a faraway look in his eyes. “Do you ever think when driving to work that someday you’d just like to keep going until you run out of gas, and then, wherever that is, you get a job there and live there?” I admitted I had the same thought many times myself. After all, until I was about 40, I’d never lived in one place more than two years at a time. Some places I’d lived in more than once, but never more than a two-year stretch at a time. I loved moving to new places and even today, after two years in one place I find myself incredibly bored with wherever I am. Although… I’ve been stuck here in Fort Hooterville for many years… (I’m still bored and more than ever!)
Anyway, Dean never followed his own dream, but one day, I did just that. Was on my way to work and hadn’t even thought about it when I woke up that morning, but halfway to Dean’s it struck me that, yeah; I’d like to keep driving until I ran out of gas.
So… I did just that. I pulled over, got on the phone and called Bud Palmer, a friend of mine from the joint who was out also. Like many ex-cons, Bud was of the same mind as I was—that “rolling stone” mentality, and in a nanosecond, he said, “You bet. Give me half an hour and I’m with you.”
An hour later, we were on our way. We would have left sooner but I had to stop to pick up some cash… at a convenience store. (Which I can talk about as the statute of limitations is past for what transpired there. Other things in the book are fiction and because of that statute of limitations thing…)
Where to, neither of us had a clue. I just wanted to go somewhere warm and interesting, and to me, that meant South.
We ended up in Lake Charles, Louisiana after some adventures along the way in Kentucky and New Orleans. Bud ended up climbing on a Trailways and going back home to his girlfriend and I stayed awhile longer, and eventually I came back to Indiana also.
I could never understand what the big deal about leaving a place and moving to another. At least in those days, you couldn’t move anywhere in the U.S. where you weren’t $100 from home, wherever home was. That was the most Greyhound charged for a one-way ticket to anywhere in the country. That means that if the worst thing happened—you couldn’t get a job, ran out of money, whatever—you were only a hundred bucks away from getting to where you had a support system and friends or family. And, no matter how broke a person might be, when push comes to shove, you can always come up with a hundred bucks.
To make this work as a novel, I had to take some liberties with the time line. Actually, I took two trips (with a different buddy) and have kind of combined them into one. One trip was a bike trip where another friend and I decided to take off on our bikes and go to Mexico. We never made it, but some of the things we did and experienced on that trip are included in JUST LIKE THAT. One thing I left out, is that at the time (of the bike trip) I had hair down to my waist and a long ZZ Top kind of beard (this was before ZZ, or at least before I was aware of them.). We arrived at the Grand Canyon and there were these little places where you could pull your vehicle off the road and gaze down into the Canyon, and we were pulled off, toking on a joint and drinking some brewskies, when four RVs pulled over and all these “popcorners”* started piling out of their campers with their cameras and taking pictures. Only… they weren’t taking pictures of the Grand Canyon. They were taking pictures of us! That’s when I first shaved my head and cut off my beard (long before Michael Jordan!). Just too much… tourists taking my picture over shots of the Grand Canyon...
*”Popcorners” is a term an old girlfriend of mine gave to retirees. One time, we were at an American Legion drinking and they were having a dance with one of those big balls swirling overhead and we looked in at the dance, and she said the dancers looked like “popcorn popping” with their white hair bobbing up and down. Ergo… “popcorners.”
A lot of this novel takes place in the joint at Pendleton and is based on experiences I had there. I think readers will get a kick out of these parts. Most books written about the joint have most of it wrong. The reason is most folks who find themselves in prison are barely literate and not likely to write a book about their experiences. At least not the ones who find themselves in state joints. In federal joints, it’s a bit different, as they house white collar criminals, but then many federal joints aren’t anything like state joints. If I ever think I’m going to end up in a state joint again, I’m pulling a federal crime and ‘fessing up to that so that I go to Prison Med instead of Michigan City! There’s really no comparison.
I had one of my advisors (Diane Lefer) at Vermont College when I was getting my MFA who asked what I thought about a famous author (whom I won’t name) who writes a lot of his fiction about criminals and the joint. I told her that while I enjoyed his fiction, I didn’t buy a word of it. His stuff sounded like it came from a guy who’d spent a night or two in the drunk tank or maybe spent a bit of time as a reporter in a joint. There’s no way such experiences counts for anything at all. It’s like those kids who go through the “Scared Straight” programs. They may go inside the walls and they may even have inmates pretending to “break bad” on them, but it’s not even close to a real experience. These kids know they’re not going to wake up in the morning and for the next several years, having to watch their backs every second. There’s only one way to get that experience and that’s to get sentenced and actually live it.
The “Scared Straight” shows are really a joke. I’ve watched a bunch of them and to begin with, the kids are always surrounded by hacks who, if an inmate actually broke bad with the kids, would have the guy in the hole and the kid hustled out immediately. It’s a stretch to think these kids actually get scared, especially since some of them have already done juvie time and may have already had somebody try to get their brown eye. And, they never have truly bad dudes participating in these deals—most look like the kind of guys who the actual bad dudes are breaking bad on. There’s no way the prison is going to let them hang out with Charlie Manson or his cellmate, Roger Smith, the “most-stabbed inmate in history.” The guys who participate in this program are trying to get out by doing this kind of “community service,” and have a boatload of good time to even qualify for the program. They’re not going to put kids in contact with the dudes who are truly bad. The kids who go through this stuff have to know this. It’s a good idea in conception, maybe, but I’d be surprised if any other than the truly naïve are much influenced by the experience.
Anyway, in JUST LIKE THAT, the reader will get a bit truer look at the joint than they will in most books… There’s a scene where Jake (the protagonist) and Bud are in a swamp in Louisiana and just shooting the shit about fears that shows the criminal mind fairly accurately. Cathy Johns, then the assistant warden at the Louisiana prison at Angola (the Farm) read this and wrote me that it was "the truest account of the criminal mind" that she'd ever read. Should be. I was a criminal for a long time.
Hope when it comes out you’ll glom onto a copy and if you do, I hope you enjoy it. We don’t have an exact date just yet, but anticipate it’ll be available as an ebook in August. I’ll post it here as soon as it is.
Here’s an excerpt:
From JUST LIKE THAT--
“Let me call my old lady,” Bud said, not even asking where I was--which was the QuickStop, or where I was going--which I didn’t know, or why or none of the kind of questions a straight john would of. Just, “Let me call Kimmie. She’s working down at Parkview Hospital in housekeeping. Give me an hour to pack.”
To kill the time, I invested in a call to my brother. “Thirty-five cents,” the operator said. “For three minutes.”
“Shit,” I said. “I just want to use this for a minute, lady, not buy it,” but I was talking to a ring tone. Bitch.
“Hello,” I said. “Is Raymond there?” It was my sister-in-law, Ruthy Ann. I figured it was a Tuesday, Ray might’ve had a hangover and skipped work. I had his work number if I needed it, but it turned out I’d called the right number first.
“--fuck you calling this early for?” he said. “I’m still in bed.”
“Yes,” I said.
A woman with a little blond boy, about four maybe, pushed by me to get to the cooler where the pop was and I had to hug the wall to let them by. He was crying he wanted a Coke-Cola and she was saying it was too early for pop; he should have a fruit juice, how about orange or maybe cranberry? The cranberry was on sale, she was explaining to this little brat; I could get two, one for you and one for me, honey. I waited till they were past to resume my own conversation.
“Jake? You still there? You calling from jail?”
Raymond calmed down when it became clear I wasn’t after bail money, was offering him something instead.
“I got a bunch of clothes, two nice leather jackets, both full-length, and other stuff, records. There’s about an eighth in a bag in one of the pockets of the brown one.”
“And I can have it all?” he said, waiting for the catch. “You owe rent or something doncha? Will the landlord let me in? You still in that place in Ft. Wayne off Lake?”
I laughed. “Yeah, and I’m paid up for two more weeks, Ray. I’ll call him, tell him to let you in. I’ll even see if he’ll give you the two weeks I already paid. I doubt it though. There’s some deposit money too, but I think he’s gonna want that to fix the door.”
“Well say, it’s worth a try,” he said. “Maybe I’ll just use it for two weeks. Have some poker parties.” I could see his mind working, figuring out how to capitalize on his sudden good fortune only I figured it wasn’t poker he had in mind. I wondered if Ruthy Ann was standing there listening and did he think she was that dumb. He was going to drive all the way down from South Bend to Fort Wayne for poker parties? Sure. “Where you going Jake? You told Mom? What’d she say?”
“No,” I said to the second question, and “I don’t know, Ray. I can’t say for sure,” to the first.
“How come you weren’t at Dad’s funeral?”
“Fuck you were. I didn’t see you. You wearing your Captain Midnight Invisible Shield?”
“Maybe. Fuck you, Ray. I was there. Don’t worry about it. I just didn’t go in the church is all. I paid my respects in private.”
When I hung up, the kid’s mother had gone to the front by the cigarettes and Slim Jims and the kid was opening and slamming shut the cooler door. I guess she’d given up on him. Me, I’da left him. Climbed in my car when he wasn’t looking and went out and took in a movie, hope he got run over by a beer truck, something.
“Kid,” I said, crooking my finger at him and bending over. “Kid, you get the cranberry juice like your momma told you. I got a gun in here and if you don’t I’m going to shoot you in the leg.” He stood there a minute and I was half out the door when he came screaming up to his mom. I looked back in the car and seen her and she had the little shit up in her arms glaring at me. So were some other people. Fuck’m, is what I thought. I was in a mood.
I started to pull out then changed my mind. One of those things that were always happening, don’t ask me why. I went back in.
“Line up by the coolers,” I said, waving my hog. “Fill it,” I said to the clerk, this kid who was a poster for the pimple cure industry, shoving one of the plastic bags on the counter at him.
While the clerk was putting the money in the bag, I told the little kid’s mother, “Honey, you go back and get you a can of that cranberry juice.” The smart thing would have been to get the hell out of there, but I wasn’t done.
“Drink it,” I told the kid. He only started bawling. “Drink it or I’m gonna blow out your kneecap, you little shithead.” His mama seen I was serious, slapped the living shit out of her kid, held the can for him while he tried to choke some down, both of them boohooing. It mostly got all over the front of his shirt way he was moving around, looked like blood.
“You mind your mama, son,” I said, going out the door. “Less you want to end up like me.”
I headed over to Bud’s place. On the way I dumped out the bag on the seat and tried to count it with my free hand. No more than fifty-sixty bucks it looked like, mostly ones and a few five’s. One lousy ten.